Au Revoir to Mr. Olbermann
Keith Olbermann says good-bye on Friday night
Above the Fold
Love him or loathe him, you have to give Keith Olbermann credit: he did more to re-balance the ideology of cable news than anyone else ever did.
Olbermann’s success was entirely responsible for MSNBC’s decision to re-brand itself as the liberal alternative to Fox. Before Olbermann landed there eight years ago, the network had never had any discernible identity, or consistent prime time success.
Until Olbermann started drawing in new viewers at 8 PM, starting at a couple of hundred thousand, building to 726,000 by 2007, and toping out at more than a million, no cable network had discovered that a champion of progressive ideas could be nearly as profitable as a Bill O’Reilly or a Glenn Beck.
In stark contract to those two serial prevaricators, Olbermann brought a keen intelligence and genuine intellectual honesty to his program. Anyone who thinks that he and Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell are “just the liberal version of Fox” either have never watched Roger Ailes’ network, or don’t know the difference between intelligent commentary and pure propaganda.
No one doubts that both Maddow and O’Donnell owe their current shows to Olbermann, not only because of his successful example, but also because they were his frequent guests and/or guest hosts.
When O’Donnell assumed Olbermann’s slot this week–what he called “the most successful hour in MSNBC history”–he said, “I am here thanks entirely to Keith.”
That same night Rachel Maddow praised Olbermann for “clearing the space” for liberals to be liberals on television, by “not only voicing his own opinion but by being really freaking successful while he did it. If you want to be a pioneer, don’t just be the first person like you to do something, be the first person like you to do it brilliantly. That’s how you change the world, so others like you get chances too.”
To some Olbermann’s bombastic special comments made him look and sound too much like fictional anchorman Ted Baxter, but they were always full of unvarnished truths–especially when he described the right-wing’s attack on Shirley Sherrod:
Let me make this utterly clear: What you see on Fox News, what you read on Right Wing websites, is the utter and complete perversion of journalism, and it can have no place in a civilized society. It is words crashed together, never to inform, only to inflame. It is a political guillotine. It is the manipulation of reality to make the racist seem benevolent, and to convict the benevolent as racist — even if her words must be edited, filleted, stripped of all context, rearranged, fabricated, and falsified, to do so.
What you see on Fox News, what you read on Right Wing websites… is a manipulation. Not just of a story, not just on behalf of a political philosophy. Manipulation of a society, its intentional redirection from reality and progress, to a paranoid delusion and the fomenting of hatred of Americans by Americans…The assassins of the Right have been enabled on the Left.
As I wrote then, “It has become fashionable to dismiss Keith Olbermann as an over-the-top ranter — or as the MSNBC host put it himself, ‘a mirror image of that which I assail.’ But there was nothing over-the-top about his special comment about Shirley Sherrod. Every word he spoke was true.
“And the only thing that made his stance so remarkable is the abject failure of the mainstream media … to accurately describe the source of the allegation against Sherrod, or to chronicle the long-term impact of the ‘complete perversion of journalism’ practiced 365 days a year by Fox News (and the right-wing bloggers and radio hosts that make up the rest of this wackosphere).”
When Ted Koppel attacked Olbermann for his admittedly misguided contributions to three Democratic political candidates last year (including one to Gabrielle Giffords), Olbermann was equally accurate in his retort that the only times the networks have made crucial contributions to the life of the republic have been when its anchors threw off their cloaks of objectivity–when Ed Murrow attacked Joe McCarthy, when Walter Cronkite devoted half of the CBS Evening News to Watergate, and–most importantly–when Cronkite went to Vietnam after the Tet Offensive in 1968, and declared the war an unwinnable stalemate.
Olbermann said, “the great change about which Mr. Koppel wrings his hands is not partisanship nor tone nor analysis. The great change was the creation of the sanitized image of what men like Cronkite and Murrow and [others, including Koppel] did. These were not glorified stenographers. These were not neutral men. These were men who did in their day what the best of journalists still try to do in this one. Evaluate, analyze, unscramble, assess — put together a coherent picture, or a challenging question — using only the facts as they can best be discerned, plus their own honesty and conscience.”
Asked by FCP to summarize Olbermann’s contributions, longtime media student Martha Ritter described them this way:
He asked all the questions I wanted asked that no one else would. Piercing through the haze, maze, sorting out what the hell just happened today in a three dimensional way. WHY did this happen? Is it the state of the country? Is it a couple of nut jobs cooking something up? Now what can we expect? Why? Can we do something about it? (Yes, in some cases…i.e. help organize medical clinics, put your money where your mouth is…Here’s the phone number, etc.)
It was like coming home to a brilliant, cranky family member who had nothing better to do all day than follow the flow of muck that shapes our lives, and run around talking to everyone about EVERYTHING to do with it. You get him at the end of the day when he holds what he’s gathered up to the light. You get his opinion PLUS valuable info, and on top of that…the cathartic honor of throwing up with him, marveling at ineptitude, absurdities, cracking up together, sometimes even witnessing other well-intentioned, smart, deft people who are helping the muck flow in the right direction.
He took nothing at face value. He served up motivations and belief systems, often through interviews right before our eyes at a level of reporting you don’t exactly get in, say, The New York Times–or, for that matter, on a regular basis from Chris Matthews or Rachel Maddow, who, although they share Olbermann’s point of view, dig less and pontificate more.
He expressed the outrage of millions in a razor sharp, nuanced, outsized, often entertaining way. What I am really going to miss is the feeling that, “Yeah, sock it to em, Keith. I’m going to relax and get something to eat.”
Last Friday Olbermann’s multiple battles with his bosses–perhaps combined with an eagerness by them to please the incoming owners from Comcast–culminated in the sharp surprise of Olbermann’s final MSNBC broadcast.
If the rumors are true that the cost of the separation to MSNBC was to pay Olbermann another $14 million for the last two years of his contract, it’s not hard to understand why Keith took the deal. According to Bill Carter and Brian Stelter, Olbermann’s deal with MSNBC will only keep him off television for nine months–at the most.
That means he can return to the tube well beefore the 2012 presidential campaign begins in earnest.
Given his proven capacity to make money with often riveting television, there will be no shortage of cable outlets eager to get him back on the air.
And that is good news for America.